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BOOK EXCERPT–AL BERNSTEIN: 30 Years, 30 Undeniable Truths

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UNDENIABLE TRUTH #3: UNLIKE REALITY TV, LIVE SPORTS TELEVISION IS ACTUALLY REAL

In the wonderful movieMy Favorite Year, set in the 1950s, aging movie star Alan Swann (played expertly by Peter O’Toole) is just about ready for his guest appearance on The King KaiserShow, and he says, “I feel so good I think I’ll get it in one take.” A young producer responds with a chuckle, “Here we always get it in one take—it’s live.” A horrified Swann asks, “Live, what do you mean live? You mean everything we say just spills out there for people to hear?”. The producer says, “Well…yes.” Alan replies, “I can’t do that. I’m not an actor. I’m a movie star.”

In live sports television it all just “spills out” to everyone as it happens. And so it is exhilarating to do live sports television—but there is no delete button. In thirty years of doing this I have seen, and been responsible for, some noteworthy gaffes. Except for the only perfect sportscaster, Bob Costas, we have all had our moments. Well, come to think of it, even Bob may have made a mistake once in the 1990s…or was it the 80s?

If sportscasters have had their share of imprudent or mistaken comments, active participants in sporting events have had even more. These things happen either because someone is nervous about being on television or they are so relaxed they forget they are on television. Except for comedians on cable networks who do it on purpose, most people curse on TV because it is part of their DNA and they forget they are live to the world.

One such person was a lightweight boxer named Kenny “Bang Bang” Bogner, who was a frequent combatant on theESPN Top Rank Boxingseries in the early 1980s. He was always in exciting fights—his 1982 win over Kato Wilson was judged the best ESPN fight of that year. He had a large and vocal fan base in the Atlantic City, New Jersey, area, and they were there in force for his fight with Wilson. I was trying to interview him in the ring after the win, and his adoring fans were still cheering wildly. I asked him a question about how he achieved his victory and he squinted at me as though he could not hear, so I repeated the question. He responded, “Al, I didn’t hear a f$@#ing word you said.” So, I leaned in closer and asked the question as loud as I could. He responded, “Oh! Now I hear you. I didn’t hear a f$@#ing word you said before.” After that, his answer to the question was a bit anticlimactic.

As a side note to this, a year later Kenny was scheduled to fight Ray Mancini for the world lightweight title, but a Mancini shoulder injury derailed the match. For that fight Frank Sinatra was actually scheduled to be a commentator at ringside and do interviews on the telecast. I’ve always wondered—if Old Blue Eyes would have been faced with a similar situation with Bogner inside the ring—I’m sure Frank would have been deeply offended, having never heard that kind of language before.

Ever since microphones found their way into boxing corners in the 1980s, we have been treated to some colorful and entertaining monologues from trainers. I remember one who spent about fifty seconds of the one-minute break berating his fighter with a profanity-laced diatribe that would make Sarah Silverman blush. Then he looked at the cameraman, got a horrified look on his face and shouted “Oh f$@#, I’m on TV.”

Many have been mistaken about the round number as they dispensed advice to a fighter. On an ESPN show in the early 1990s, a trainer told his fighter that it was the last round coming up. The boxer looked at him and said, “No it’s not.” Trying to save face, the trainer said, “Oh, right, I was testing you.” Gee, the previous thirty minutes of him getting punched wasn’t the real test?

Another time a trainer got into the ring and started his instructions when a particularly exquisite ring-card girl went by their corner. As if it were choreographed, both the trainer and fighter swiveled their heads to follow her progress. The trainer interrupted his instructions with one word, “Jeez.” Then he went back to talking boxing. When the scene ended, my witty broadcast partner Barry Tompkins wryly commented, “See, it takes concentration to be a great athlete.” So, there was an example of perfectly chosen words delivered well by a sportscaster. Oh, if it were only always so.

After Sal Marchiano left ESPN in 1982, there was a six-year period before Barry Tompkins arrived for his almost eight-year stint as my partner. During that six-year interim period just about everyone who ever passed through ESPN headquarters in Bristol, Connecticut, appeared at least once as my broadcast partner. During one stretch of our weekly boxing series I worked with eight different partners in eight weeks. One fellow, whose name mercifully I really can’t remember so he can be anonymous, was as nervous as anyone I have ever worked with. He had a deer-in-the-headlights look on his face for two-and-a-half hours and hung on by his fingernails until the final moments of the telecast, and then he lost his grip. He closed the show by saying, “So I’m Al Bernstein for my partner [his name], saying goodnight.” Ouch.

Wit was not restricted to Barry on theESPN Top Rank Boxingseries. Sal demonstrated it while covering up for a rookie mistake I made in 1981. We were in an empty arena in Worcester, Massachusetts, doing the close of a show. Normally, when we went to video highlights of the show on screen, we were never put back on camera again. So, while Sal was wrapping things up with the highlights showing, I took off my microphone, got up, and started to leave. At that precise moment they came back to us on camera, just in time to see me exiting the shot. Sal said, “We will see you next week in Atlantic City, and that’s Al getting a head start.” I never did that again, but I have done other things.

As of the writing of this book I am still gainfully employed as the boxing analyst onShowtime Championship Boxing—by far the best job I have ever had on television. The fact that I still have that job is an indication that the folks who run Showtime have a sense of humor. I’ll explain. We were doing a match in 2009 from the Home Depot Center, just outside of Los Angeles. I was on camera with Steve Albert, and I was supposed to make a comment about the fans who had braved rain showers to come out to the event. When it was my turn to talk I said, “And these great fans have braved the elements to see boxing tonight at the Home Box Office Center.” Home Box Office, of course, stands for HBO, Showtime’s competitor. At that moment the sound I imagined hearing was the gnashing of teeth by Showtime executives across the country in New York. Steve rescued the moment by saying, “Well, Al, I guess you just had your YouTube moment.” Indeed I had.

Some sixteen years earlier I barely escaped what surely could have been an embarrassing episode. I was assigned to do a pay-per-view fight and arrived in Phoenix two days before the card. Then I contracted perhaps the worst stomach flu I have ever had. For about forty-eight hours I stayed in my hotel room and threw up. It was beyond horrible. On the day of the fight I was barely able to get dressed and go to the arena. My broadcast partner for the evening was the very gifted Sam Rosen. He took one look at me and said, “You need help.” That was an understatement. Someone found the ring doctor and brought him over. I explained what was going on and he said, “No problem, I’ll fix you up.” He gave me a shot for the nausea and I was feeling better in a remarkably short period of time.

What that doctor forgot to mention is that those shots can also make you very drowsy. About thirty minutes into the telecast my eyelids were drooping. Every time my head slumped forward a bit, Sam elbowed me in the side to wake me up. I contributed precious little of note to that telecast—Sam carried me through the whole thing, and I know there were a few rounds where I nodded off to sleep briefly. The intriguing part of all of this is that no one commented on my lack of contributions, which either spoke to Sam’s excellence or the low expectations people had of me. I’m rooting for the former, not the latter. We can all name television personalities who have put viewers to sleep with their commentary—but I may be the only one who ever succeeded in puttinghimselfto sleep during a broadcast. That takes true talent.

I admire and respect Marvin Hagler as much as any athlete in history. He’s a great boxer and a stand-up guy. He and I have always had an excellent relationship. So, it is ironic that my two worst on-the-air mistakes were saved for Marvin’s fights. Both mistakes slightly tarnished important moments in his career.

The first came in 1985 after his win over Tommy Hearns. I announced the fight with Al Michaels on pay-per-view, and after Hagler’s stirring KO win in round 3, I said the following: “This amazing victory more than compensates for his loss to Roberto Duran.” Well, as any casual boxing fan knows, Marvin didnotlose to Duran, something I certainly knew, since I also announced that fight on pay-per-view.

Hagler won a close decision over Duran in which many felt he was too passive against the smaller Hands of Stone. He won nonetheless, and probably by a wider margin than the judges’ scorecards indicated. I wanted to say in my comment after the Hearns win that Hagler had surely put to rest any criticism he may have gotten for not stopping Duran. What came out of my mouth was unfortunatelynotthat thought.

We now flash forward to 1986 and the fight between Hagler and John Mugabi. Hagler had scored an exciting TKO win in the 11th round, and I was up in the ring interviewing him about the win. We were nearing the end of the interview and the producer said something in my ear that went a little longer than it should have, and I did not hear all of one of Marvin’s statements. The part I heard was: “Would you all mind if I left?” I thought he meant he wanted to end the interview, so I said, “No problem Marvin, you worked hard enough tonight, congratulations.” Then I turned back to the camera to do a final analysis of the evening, as planned, leaving a slightly befuddled Marvin Hagler in my wake. As the great Paul Harvey used to say, here is the rest of the story.

The full comment that Marvin had made in the interview was, “Since this is my 12th title defense, maybe it’s time to retire, would you all mind if I left?” Well, by missing the first part of that statement, and dismissing Marvin, I was ignoring a potential retirement announcement on the air from boxing’s biggest name. So…that went well. Only later did I find out about my blunder—I did not sleep very much that night.

These two incidents make it look like I was dedicated to trying to ruin Marvin Hagler’s legacy. However, in between these two incidents I gave him hundreds of richly deserved compliments on the air. So, apparently I was actually more intent on ruiningmycareer. Somehow I survived those two mistakes made on boxing’s center stage.

Sometimes on live television, craziness is thrust upon you through no fault of your own. We often did our ESPNTop Rank Boxingshows from various spots in Massachusetts. A good number of the fans there were, well, let’s say enthusiastic. Ok, maybe I can go so far as to say they were a little out of control. Wait, what’s the word I’m searching for…oh, yes…NUTS! Alcohol was usually involved in their erratic behavior. Some of it was a bit hostile, like the time in Brockton when Sal Marchiano and I were doing our on-camera open to the show, and for reasons known only to them, the fans right in front of us started to chant, “You guys suck.” I was only about one-and-a-half years into my sportscasting career, and I don’t mind telling you I was a bit rattled. I fought my way through the comments I was supposed to make, looking at these angry and raucous souls out of the corner of my eye—to make sure they weren’t rushing us. Sal, on the other hand, was chuckling and said on the air, “I guess you can hear how much they love us here in Brockton, we’ll be back with our first bout right away, so stay with us.” As we sat down at ringside during the commercial I said to Sal, “Wow, this is crazy.” He said, “Hey, it could be worse, at least nobody’s throwing anything. Wait until that happens.”

Well, I knew that from time to time fans at a boxing match would get a bit disturbed at a decision or a fight stoppage and toss a few items toward the ring— you know, coins, bottles, spouses…whatever they could lay their hands on. But, what I did not realize, and most people don’t think about, is that a television commentator is the most vulnerable person in that arena under those circumstances. Why?Because we can’t move.We are tied to our spot by the cords of the headsets and the fact that we are on live television, so we can’t leave.

Over these thirty some years I have been ringside when crowds have been a bit distressed and chose to vent their anger by throwing things at the ring. Amazingly, for almost twenty-nine of those years, I avoided any genuine direct hits—oh, once or twice something grazed off my back, but nothing worrisome. Then came San Juan, Puerto Rico, in 2011. Hometown hero Juan Manuel Lopez was defending his featherweight title against Mexico’s Orlando Salido. Lopez was undefeated and the favorite in the fight. But, apparently no one told Salido this, and he spent the first seven rounds blasting Lopez around the ring—even putting him down once. In the 8th round Salido landed a couple of good punches and stunned Lopez, but Lopez had actually been hurt worse earlier in the fight, and he is famous for his resiliency. And, the referee was from Puerto Rico. So, you wouldn’t expect a quick stoppage there. You wouldn’t expect it, but that’s exactly what happened.

Even though Lopez may well have been stopped in the next minute or next round or later, this was odd timing for the stoppage. The fans were somewhat justifiably upset. So naturally, they started pelting the ring with objects. I was a bit oblivious to the items raining down at first, because I was concentrating on doing the replays. Ironically I was in midsentence suggesting that the booing fans may have a point about the stoppage being a bit too soon, when a full water bottle hit me about a quarter-inch from my right eye. It hit so hard the thud could be clearly heard on the air through my microphone. I gave an audible groan from shock and pain. Gus Johnson, my broadcast partner for the evening, announced, “My partner has been hit.”

One of Gus’ charms as a sportscaster is his ability to capture the drama of the moment, and perhaps enhance it a bit—well, one might surmise from his call that a sniper had shot me. But, however heated, his description was accurate—and I had a cut and a bruise under my right eye to prove it. I took my headset off to get myself together—I was dazed to be sure. A minute later I was talking on the broadcast again, but with an aching face and a headache to beat the band. It dawned on me later that I could have said something really loopy on the air—I was still a bit groggy. But, then, given some of the on-air gaffes I have admitted to in this chapter, how much worse could I have done, and in this case I would have had a built-in excuse.

It’s actually a miracle that it took twenty-nine years of broadcasting fights to get hit on the head with something. It’s as if all the people throwing things all those years had the kind of aim it takes to be a Chicago Cubs pitcher. I received e-mails, tweets, and letters from many Puerto Rican fans who apologized for their countrymen—which was very nice but completely unnecessary. The Puerto Rican boxing fans are among the nicest and most knowledgeable in the world. Besides, I’m sure that bottle wasn’t meant for me…unless of course, Marvin Hagler was there that night and he was just getting even.

AL BERNSTEIN: 30 Years, 30 Undeniable Truths is now available via Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Apple, and Kobo.

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Ramsey Clark and Muhammad Ali

Thomas Hauser

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Ramsey Clark, who championed human rights throughout his life and served as Attorney General of the United States during the last 26 months of Lyndon Johnson’s administration died on April 9 at age 93. In one of history’s ironies, Clark (probably the most liberal attorney general in the history of the United States) was responsible for approving the 1967 criminal prosecution of Muhammad Ali for refusing induction into the United States Army.

Clark was born in Dallas in 1927. He served in the Marines during World War II, was an undergraduate at the University of Texas, and earned his law degree at the University of Chicago. As Attorney General, he filed lawsuits to combat discrimination in employment and housing and in support of school desegregation and voting rights. After leaving office, he moved considerably further to the left, making some former allies uncomfortable. In 2008, the United Nations General Assembly honored him with its Prize in the Field of Human Rights, an award given out at five-year intervals. Previous recipients included Eleanor Roosevelt, Martin Luther King Jr, and Nelson Mandela.

“A right is not what someone gives you,” Clark once said. “It’s what no one can take from you.”

I met Clark in 1989 when I interviewed him while researching Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times. Several years later, I interviewed him again when Frank Macchiarola and I co-authored a book entitled Confronting America’s Moral Crisis.

Speaking of Ali and Vietnam, Clark told me, “I opposed the war in Vietnam as early as I became aware of it which was sometime in the mid-1960s. I can remember the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution and thinking that Wayne Morse and Earnest Gruening [the two senators who voted against the resolution] were heroes. And I remember William Fulbright’s limited opposition to the war and thinking it was good but not enough. Then, in September 1966, I was named acting attorney general and the appointment became final in February 1967.”

“I can’t say that I had a studied judgment on whether or not the war was legal,” Clark continued. “But I had grave doubts about it. If we’re going to be a constitutional government, before we get a half million men in a foreign country shooting and killing, we ought to know whether it’s constitutional and permissible to do it. Maybe as attorney general, I should have been out there saying, ‘This war is against the law.’ But I didn’t, and part of the reason was I had come into the government in 1961 in the midst of the civil rights struggle. By 1967, it might have looked like things were going well, but the truth is we were very badly embattled. There was quite a bit of conflict between those who wanted to keep expanding in the area of civil rights and those who did not, and we were barely able to hold on. Also, I was opposing the death penalty. We had stopped federal executions in 1963, and 1968 would be the first year in the history of the United States that we didn’t have a single execution despite the fact that that was the year Martin Luther King and Bob Kennedy were assassinated. Those struggles were very real and very important to me. There were a lot of people who wanted me to abandon them by resigning over the war in Vietnam, which was clearly the overriding moral issue in our society at the time. But in terms of all the things I believed in and all the causes in which I was involved, that would have let a lot of people down.”

Regarding Ali, Clark recalled, “Muhammad’s conflict with the draft board was a great concern of mine, although I’d have to say, not as great as the concern I had for the poor young black kids from the ghettos or the rural poor from the South who never had a chance to question whether or not to go to Vietnam and who got brutalized and killed. My own personal view was that a person should have a right to conscientious objector status without professing a specific religious faith, and that one should be able to base it upon what you might call philosophical rather than religious grounds. But that of course was not the law then, nor is it now. I don’t recall and doubt very much that I discussed the case with President Johnson. I had a strict policy not to discuss criminal cases with the president. I felt it would have been dangerous in appearance and potentially dangerous in fact to insert politics into a criminal matter, and the White House is a political office. Obviously, Muhammad’s indictment involved some hard choices. But the good thing about it was, there was power on both sides to shape and test the issues. I wasn’t particularly happy about it, but life is full of turbulence and conflict, and I never try to avoid either. In fact, I guess I seek them out because that’s where the chance to make a difference is.”

Ramsey Clark

Ramsey Clark

On June 20, 1967, Ali was convicted of unlawfully refusing induction into the United States Armed Forces. Four years later – on June 28, 1971 – the United States Supreme Court unanimously overturned his conviction.

“The government didn’t need Ali to fight the war,” Clark said afterward. “But they would have loved to put him in the service, get his picture in there, maybe give him a couple of stripes on his sleeve and take him all over the world. Think of the power that would have had in Africa, Asia, and South America. Here’s this proud American serviceman, fighting symbolically for his country. They would have loved to do that.”

Thereafter, Clark and Ali worked together on several projects. On one occasion, Ramsey and his wife joined Muhammad and Lonnie Ali as guests for dinner in my home. The mutual admiration between the two men was obvious.

“To me, Muhammad Ali is a totally spiritual person,” Clark said later. “It doesn’t have to do with the Christian faith in which he was raised, and it doesn’t have to do with the Islamic faith to which he converted. It has to do with his love for life, his faith in the human spirit, and his belief in the equality of all people. I see Ali as a human being whose sense of purpose in life is to help others. He must lay awake at night, wondering what he can do to help people, because wherever people are in need, his priorities are there. He sees children who are right next to him, but children who are starving in Africa and threatened by bombing in Iraq are also within the scope of his imagination. He wants to help everyone and he travels at great personal burden and financial expense to be wherever he’s needed. I say, God bless him. He makes an enormous difference.”

And there were other thoughts that Clark shared with me over time:

*         “I don’t like boxing. I oppose boxing because I think it’s violent and damaging to the young men who participate in it. It symbolizes our glorification of violence and the rule of violence over compassion and the rule of law. I also don’t believe in fame. I think fame, like power, is a profound misunderstanding and distortion of what is good and desirable. One of the most damaging beliefs people have is that only those who are famous or hold power can change things or make a difference. True social change has to come from the people. Each of us has to want to be involved and has to believe that we as individuals can make a difference and that our ability to make a difference doesn’t depend upon our being elected to the House of Representatives or being the preacher of the biggest church in town or president of a corporation or heavyweight champion of the world. Those roles tend to be selfish and self-fulfilling and debilitating in terms of the pureness of one’s commitment. You make so many compromises in pursuing those careers that it’s an illusion to think that’s how you make the changes you care about, if you care about justice and social change.”

*         “Muhammad Ali made an enormous difference. There was a quality of pure goodwill about him. There always has been, and I believe, always will be. Here was a young black man from American poverty. He could very easily have been embittered, hateful, racist. But through all his trials and tribulations, he never manifested any of those qualities. And when he spoke, he said loving things. In his mind, wishes came true, and that’s the way a good portion of his life has been. He meant different things to different strata of American society. But to the poor, he meant you can do what you will; anything is possible.”

*         “Muhammad Ali gave people hope. He inspired and continues to inspire millions of people. And to everyone, he meant that you can be gentle and strong, that there’s not a contradiction there; because for all his obvious physical strength, he always evoked gentleness and love. With Muhammad Ali, you saw grace; you saw joy. He meant charity in the truest sense of the word. He made people proud to be who they were.”

*         “It’s not an anomaly; it shows the way we are, really, that he came to the opportunity to do all that he did through fighting. But he’s always had a vision that goes beyond the violence of boxing. His character causes him to want to help others. And character is destiny. That’s the character we need. He hasn’t been able to accomplish all that he wanted. Much of what he set out to do never materialized. But he’s a person of unique good will and good works. He touched so many lives and brought out the better angels in millions of people.”

*         “You know, the joy of life is that you have to persevere and do what you can to make this a better world. We’re going to have a billion more people on earth before the end of this century. The great majority of them will have dark skin and live in terrible poverty. Hundreds of millions of them will have shortened lives and suffer from hunger, malnutrition, ignorance, and disease. But if the rest of us can come through in the manner of Muhammad Ali, we can solve the problems that lie ahead. The most important thing he communicates is his love and desire to do good. That was what he taught us all. And if you can really communicate that, that there are people who love; well, then maybe you’ll change the world.”

And there was a final grace note.

“I see him from time to time,” Clark said of Ali. “And the last time I saw him, I told him – and I meant it – I said to him, ‘You’ll always be my champion.’”

Thomas Hauser’s email address is thomashauserwriter@gmail.com. His most recent book – Staredown: Another Year Inside Boxing – was published by the University of Arkansas Press. In 2004, the Boxing Writers Association of America honored Hauser with the Nat Fleischer Award for career excellence in boxing journalism. In 2019, Hauser was selected for boxing’s highest honor – induction into the International Boxing Hall of Fame.

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There Was a Smorgasbord of Tasty Delights in Dueling TV Fight Cards

Bernard Fernandez

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Technology has not advanced to the point where someone can actually be in two places at the same time, but until that happens, the next best thing is the wonderful consolation prize of being able to watch one fight card live on television while recording the other for delayed perusal.

Maybe there can be too much of a good thing sometimes. If I were in a position where I had to make a choice to physically be in attendance at one site or another on Saturday night, it would have been difficult choosing between being there to witness Philadelphia’s emerging welterweight sensation, Jaron “Boots” Ennis, put on another spectacular show in dispatching former junior welter world champion Sergey Lipinets in the Showtime-televised main event in Uncasville, Conn., or another gritty performance by blue-collar, working-class hero Joe Smith Jr. as he finally won a world light heavyweight title with a hard-fought, typically inelegant and somewhat controversial majority decision over Russia’s Maxim Vlasov in the ESPN/ESPN+ card-topper at the Osage Casino in Tulsa, Okla.

In and of themselves, the two featured bouts, so different in execution and outcome but each compelling in their own way, would have satisfied most fight fans. But like a buffet line where diners can snack on tasty hors d’oeuvres –type fare before loading their plates with a preferred entrée item, each card offered additional value by way of televised undercard bouts.

The most dominant performance, and the one of highest potential value moving forward? That would be still another star-making turn by the 23-year-old Ennis (27-0, 25 KOs), who did pretty much whatever he wanted in becoming the first fighter to knock out Lipinets (16-2-1, 12 KOs), the 32-year-old former IBF junior welterweight titlist who had gone the distance with Mikey Garcia and had never been decked as a professional until he went down twice against Boots, who looks like he has the goods to soon take his place in the pantheon of outstanding fighters to represent the city of his birth.

OK, so the first ruled knockdown by referee Arthur Mercante Jr., which came in the fourth round, likely was an error of judgment as replays showed that Lipinets actually tripped on Ennis’ foot. But there was no mistaking what happened in the sixth round, when Ennis, who had been casually teeing off on the stocky Russian as if he were just another heavy bag to be pounded on in the gym, caught Lipinets with a right hook followed by a left uppercut. Lipinets went down flat onto his back, and Mercante immediately waved the massacre off, dispensing with the formality of initiating a count.

The ending meant that Ennis still had not been extended beyond the sixth round as a pro, but this relatively swift termination of a bout whose outcome seemed predetermined from the outset was more significant given Lipinets’ reputation as a tough, durable former champ who had never been so outclassed in matchups with other top-shelf performers. If Ennis hadn’t already stamped himself as a force to be reckoned with in the 147-pound weight class, his domination of Lipinets sent that message out loud and clear.

“Another special fighter from Philadelphia. Imagine that,” said Showtime blow-by-blow announcer Mauro Ranallo.

“More Boots Ennis,” studio host Brian Custer said when asked what he wanted next. “This kid is spectacular. Say his name. Jaron `Boots’ Ennis is going to be a problem in the welterweight division.”

What wasn’t there to like? Ennis has a smorgasbord of ring skills that would be difficult for even other elite 147-pounders to solve. He switches from orthodox to southpaw as fluidly and effectively as does arguably the top pound-for-pound fighter in the world, Terence “Bud” Crawford (37-0, 28 KOs), the WBO welterweight ruler. He occasionally employed the shoulder roll that was a staple of the great Floyd Mayweather Jr., and his penchant for finishing off his man when he has him in trouble pretty much is beyond dispute at this stage of a career whose best days might yet come.

According to CompuBox statistics, Ennis landed a ridiculously high percentage of his power shots (91 of 172, 52.9%), going to the body frequently as part of a well-thought-out strategy crafted by his father-trainer, Derrick “Bozy” Ennis. His next fight may well be against the formidable Yordenis Ugas (26-4, 12 KOs), a Miami-based Cuban, but by now it doesn’t seem much of a stretch to imagine him giving the welterweight division’s crème de la crème, Crawford and WBC/IBF titlist Errol Spence Jr. (27-0, 21 KOs) all they could handle. Perhaps Ennis would benefit from a bit more seasoning against higher-tier opponents, but if his time isn’t exactly right now, that time is fast approaching.

“I was just in there, having fun, doing me,” Ennis said of his unhurried but quite thorough thrashing of Lipinets. “You know, being real relaxed and putting on a show … I just coasted, I took my time and I broke him down.”

Joe Smith Jr. MD12 Maxim Vlasov

The backstory of Joe Smith Jr. – a card-carrying member of Local 66 from Long Island, N.Y., who spends his days pouring concrete, digging trenches, laying sheetrock, power-washing septic tanks and knocking down walls with a sledgehammer, and his nights training as a light heavyweight contender with a dream of making it all the way to a world title – always have been a bit more intriguing than what his limited skill-set has been able to produce inside the ropes.

This 31-year-old Everyman with a most common name is tough, determined and a dangerous puncher, but all that will carry him only so far now that he finally has that bejeweled belt (as winner of the vacant WBO 175-pound championship) he so long has coveted, by virtue of his hardly clear-cut majority decision over the unorthodox Russian Maxim Vlasov. Seemingly behind through 10 rounds, a bloodied and perhaps desperate Smith reached deep inside himself to win the last two rounds, drawing even on my unofficial, watching-at-home scorecard at six rounds apiece. He fared better with the judges in Tulsa, however, with David Sutherland joining me in seeing the fight as a 114-114 standoff, a determination overruled by the cards submitted by Gerald Ritter (115-112) and Pat Russell (115-113).

Presumably next up for Smith is a unification showdown with WBC/IBF ruler Artur Beterbiev (16-0, 16 KOs), the Canada-based Russian who is an even bigger puncher than Smith and is widely regarded as the best light heavyweight on the planet. Such a bout likely would mean a career-high payday for the newly wed Smith, but just as likely the end of his brief reign as an alphabet titlist.

“I want other belts,” Smith, who fought from the first round on with a worrisome cut above his left eye. “I want the big fights out there. I believe I’m going to start unifying belts.”

Finally the favorite – Smith (27-3, 21 KOs) had made his reputation on his inside-the-distance upsets of Andrzej Fonfara and nearly 52-year-old Bernard Hopkins – the easy-to-like Everyman’s coronation proved to be no easy task as Vlasov (45-4, 26 KOs) confused him in the early going with an unorthodox style that had him delivering punches from odd angles.

But Smith is difficult to discourage, and he kept pressing his attack in the hope he could find an opening to deliver the kind of put-away shot that had vanquished Fonfara and B-Hop. He got in some wicked licks, too, several times hurting Vlasov, who bled from the mouth from the seventh round on.

The 11th round was perhaps pivotal, as Vlasov went down, clearly from a punch. But referee Gary Ritter ruled that the delivered blow was an illegal rabbit punch, and he waved off the knockdown and gave Vlasov additional time to recover.

“I believe that round where I hurt him, he stuck his head down (and into the disputed punch),” Smith said. “I should have got the knockdown on that. I think I would have got the stoppage that round, but he pulled it off and made it out on his feet.”

It also could have been that, not getting credit for the knockdown, which conceivably might have opened the door to a knockout or a TKO, made Smith – who originally was to have fought Vlasov on Feb. 13, a date postponed when the Russian tested positive for COVID-19 – fight even harder the rest of the way. CompuBox listed him as landing a career-high 174 power shots, 68 coming in the last two rounds that he so clearly needed.

Whatever viewers might have thought of the decision, Smith-Vlasov was entertaining and competitive.

Efe Ajagba KO3 Brian Howard

Ajagba, a 26-year-old Nigerian, delivered one of the most emphatic one-punch knockouts of the year when he landed a jolting overhand right to the left ear of Howard, who went down in a heap, unconscious, his legs twisted beneath him. Referee Tony Crebs signaled the end of the fight immediately.

It was the second fight for the 6’6” Ajagba, who signed with Top Rank in August 2020, with his new support team of manager James Prince and trainer Kay Koroma. Whether he has bettered his circumstances for those changes (he previously was with Richard Schaefer’s Ringstar Sports, and worked with manager Shelly Finkel and trainer Ronnie Shields) is a matter of conjecture, but the promise – and punching power — he had exhibited beforehand seems to have remained intact.

“It’s my time to shine,” Ajagba said. “I’m coming for the heavyweights to become heavyweight champion of the world.”

He could get his shot, and maybe more quickly now that he is with Top Rank, which promotes the WBC titlist, Tyson Fury (30-0-1, 21 KOs), with a full unification matchup with WBA/IBF/WBO champ Anthony Joshua (24-1, 22 KOs) close to being finalized.

Nigeria has a history for producing good fighters, the most renowned being the late former middleweight and light heavyweight champion, Dick Tiger, an enshrinee into the International Boxing Hall of Fame. The best Nigerian heavyweight likely was Ike Ibeabuchi, who might have been good enough to win a world title had it not been for mental and legal issues that landed him in prison. It remains to be seen if Ajagba can match or surpass Ibeabuchi, but he would appear to have a reasonable chance of doing so in comparison to Samuel Peter, Henry Akinwande, David Izonritei and Duncan Dokiwari.

“Efe Ajagba is one of the most gifted young heavyweights I’ve seen in quite some time,” Arum said when he signed him. “He has immense physical tools and a great work ethic. I have the utmost confidence that we’re looking at a future heavyweight champion.”

The two televised lead-ins to Ennis-Lipinets were IBF junior bantamweight champion Jerwin Ancajas’ unanimous decision over Jonathan Rodriguez and rising welterweight Eimantas Stanionis’ UD12 over former world title challenger Thomas Dulorme.

Jerwin Ancajas UD12 Jonathan Rodriguez

Ancajas (33-1-2, 22 KOs), who years ago drew the attention of fellow Filipino Manny Pacquiao, retained his title for the ninth time against mandatory challenger Rodriguez (22-2, 16 KOs) of Mexico, who was decked for the first time in his pro career in round eight.

Eimantas Stanionis UD 12 Thomas Dulorme

Stanionis (13-0, 9 KOs), from Lithuania, could eventually become a factor in the loaded welterweight division. He certainly didn’t do himself any harm with his win over tough Puerto Rican Dulorme (25-5-1, 16 KOs).

Photo credit: Amanda Westcott / SHOWTIME

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The Hauser Report: Notes and Nuggets

Thomas Hauser

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On Saturday, April 10, Ebanie Bridges fought Shannon Courtenay for the vacant WBA world bantamweight championship. The fact that Courtenay-Bridges was a “world championship” fight is an embarrassment.

John Sheppard (who oversees BoxRec.com) reports that one out of every seven women’s fights is for a sanctioning body belt, with “world” championships near the top of the pyramid. Indeed, Sheppard notes that boxing’s world sanctioning bodies have created more women’s “championship” belts than there are active women boxers.

Bridges entered her “world championship” fight with a 5-0 (2 KOs) ring record. But the caliber of her opponents was appalling. Taken in order, they were:

*         Mahiecka Pareno, whose two career wins came against a woman named Jean De Paz (who has never won a fight)

*         Laura Woods, whose only pro fight was against Bridges

*         Kanittha Ninthim, who has lost twelve of thirteen fights

*         Crystol Hoy, who has won one of eleven fights since 2010.

*         Carol Earl, age 45, whose only career victories came against fighters with a composite ring record of 0-16.

So how did Bridges quality for a “world championship” fight? Well, Bridges is – shall we say – voluptuous with long blonde hair and given to wearing bikinis. As Boxing Scene recently reported, “There is more footage and photos found online of Bridges in bikinis than there are of her actual fights.”

One might find further elucidation in statements that Bridges made recently to various outlets:

*         “There’s plenty of girls with more fights than me. The difference? It’s the way I look. Let’s be real. If I wore what everyone else wore, people wouldn’t be interested. You can criticize me as much as you like. But if I looked plain, then you wouldn’t even know this fight was happening. People will tune in to see if this girl wearing lingerie can actually fight or is she just a model? This is an entertainment business. Everyone wears underwear at weigh-ins. Do you want me to wear a paper bag?”

*         “It doesn’t matter what society thinks what you should be doing. If you want to do it, you just f****** do it. I want to stay strong with it. I won’t hide the fact that I’m beautiful. What the f***! I’m going to go over there and going to flex in my lingerie. I’m going to be who I am.”

*         “Hey for people who judge me on first sight, open your mind a little bit and maybe you can see that this girl is pretty f****** real even though she has fake tits.”

Prior to fighting Bridges, Courtenay had compiled a 6-1 (3 KOs) record against mediocre opposition. Shannon isn’t close to being a world-class fighter. But during the pre-fight promotion, she indicated that she took her trade seriously, saying, “I look at people like Katie Taylor that has done everything she could to raise the bar to allow women like me to fight for a living. And I don’t like it being disrespected by not talking about the boxing, talking about what someone’s gonna wear at a weigh-in. People like Katie Taylor didn’t work her backside off to pave the way for women like me and you to be in this position to talk about underwear.”

The fight itself was a pleasant surprise. Bridges was the physically stronger of the two women and the aggressor for most of the bout. Courtenay landed the cleaner punches but didn’t hit hard enough to keep Ebanie off her. A clash of heads in round two bloodied the scalp of each combatant.

Neither woman had a credible defense. A right hand wobbled Bridges in round five and began the process of closing her left eye. By round nine, the skin around it was a bulging purple mess and the eye was completely shut. At that point Ebanie couldn’t see right hands coming, but Shannon lacked the power to put her away. It was a good, honest, low-level club fight.

The judges ruled unanimously for Courtenay by a 98-92, 98-92, 97-94 margin. She deserved the nod but not by that much.

Ebanie Bridges has the right to present herself to the public the way she wants to. But for the WBA to sanction Courtenay-Bridges as a “world championship” fight shows how absurd WBA “world championships” can be and why today’s better women boxers don’t get the respect they deserve.

*     *     *

And now for boxing purists . . .

I correspond regularly by email with a reader named John. Most of our exchanges are about boxing. Some go beyond the sweet science. Among the thoughts he has expressed that are worth sharing are:

*         “No real fighter takes pride in losing with everyone watching. When did that become an act of courage, to make money on losing? That is not a fighter’s mentality. Never has been. That is an entertainer’s mentality, an actor’s job. Sometimes I get so angry to see people who have the chance of a lifetime do just that. If you want to let people use you, go ahead. But then you are no longer a fighter.”

*         “The loss of Hagler so suddenly really has affected people. His reach was deep into the boxing world. He carried himself as a Champion. Many people who are very critical of what boxing has become still look to Hagler as an example of what boxing is. Or should I say was? When did it all become a circus atmosphere in the ring? All this talking that means nothing. All the noise that drowns out the quiet truth of a fighter, men who walk into the ring and do what few men are gifted to do. We had something special. I hope we do not lose sight of that. It takes a lot to get my attention. But the loss of Hagler has stayed with me.”

*         “Things used to start with the idea of building something up in the boxing ring based on certain principles. I give you an honest display of good boxing, and you pull your money out and say you appreciate it.  Now everyone is so wrapped up in getting money. Every step of the way, every person has got to stick their hand in the pocket of the fight fan. It sickens me.”

*         “I do not expect everyone to know from experience what it is like to suffer from hunger. It is not a pleasant thing. Most people think being hungry is having lunch a few hours late. There are people who have grown up and gone to bed hungry many a night. And either you are one of them or you are not.”

Photo credit: Dave Thompson / MATCHROOM

Thomas Hauser’s email address is thomashauserwriter@gmail.com. His most recent book – Staredown: Another Year Inside Boxing – was published by the University of Arkansas Press. In 2004, the Boxing Writers Association of America honored Hauser with the Nat Fleischer Award for career excellence in boxing journalism. In 2019, Hauser was selected for boxing’s highest honor – induction into the International Boxing Hall of Fame.

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